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Antlers rank among nature’s true wonders

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Antlers, a wonder of nature.

Anyone who spends time in the outdoors gets to behold the wonders of nature, and among those wonders is a regal set of antlers on a mature white-tailed buck. When a hunter encounters such antlers, his or her heart rate rises sharply, and, in some cases, that fast-beating heart leads to a case of buck fever. Yes, having the opportunity to take a regally racked buck is the Super Bowl of deer hunting.

Deer antlers are sometimes referred to as horns, but that is a misnomer as horns are permanent whereas antlers grow anew annually. That growth is a true miracle of nature.

Antler Growth

A buck’s antlers begin growing anew every April. This growth is due to an increasing amount of sunlight and the resulting hormonal stimulus. Growing up to half an inch a day, antlers are the fastest growing form of tissue in the animal kingdom. As this tender tissue grows, a protective skin, called velvet, covers the tissue. As a general rule, antlers are formed and hardened by late August or early September, when the blood supply no longer finds its way to the velvet covering. The velvet then dies and falls off or is rubbed off.

Wildlife biologists believe that the strain on a buck’s body for the production of a large set of antlers is equivalent to the stress of a doe giving birth to a pair of fawns.

Antler Casting

The natural antler cycle concludes when bucks, due to a decrease in testosterone level, shed their racks. Antler casting typically occurs in late December or January although some bucks have been known to carry their antlers into March. For the most part, casting is a hormonal process, but nutrition can also affect when shedding occurs. The loss of antlers is painless for deer, and both antlers may fall off the same day or even weeks apart. Searching for shed antlers is a form of recreation for some individuals, but the majority of sheds are located while people are in the pursuit of other outdoors activities.

Locating shed antlers is a fairly uncommon occurrence in area woodlots, though, because of the vastness of the woods and because a variety of rodents, such as mice and squirrels eat the antlers for their calcium and phosphorus.

Biologists have developed eight theories on why bucks annually shed their antlers. Two of the most popular ones are that shedding is nature’s way to replace damaged antlers and that new antlers are required every year so that antler size can keep pace with body size.

Influences on Antler Size

Authorities agree that genetics, nutrition, and age are the primary factors in determining a buck’s rack although current thinking suggests that herd management and such factors as overall population and the buck-to-doe ratio, too, may play roles.

Even though genetics is the least understood factor in antler development, biologists believe that genetics is more of an influence on the form and shape of antlers than their actual size. Nutrition is an easily understood concept, and areas with rich soil and nutritious foods produce better antlers.

The most significant factor in antler growth, though, is age.

Deer are individuals and there are exceptions, but as a general rule, antler growth follows this sequence. Male fawns have hair-covered knobs called buttons. Yearling bucks have spikes, forks, or a small set of branched antlers. Two-and-one-half-year-old deer typically carry a larger set of branched antlers.

A deer’s antler mass and often the number of antler points continue to increase when the deer is 31/2 and again when he is 4 1/2 years. Most bucks reach peak growth in antler configuration at 4 1/2 years, though some animals reach that peak a year or even two years later. Also, after 4 1/2 years, a buck’s antlers may increase in mass.

Purpose of Antlers

Biologists believe that antlers serve a combination of purposes.

One is heat radiation during the summer months when antlers are in their velvet stage. A second is protection or self-defense, and a third is scent dispersal.

Antlers also are tools of aggression for sparring and fighting in order to establish dominance among bucks in a given area. Antlers also play a psychological role in intimidating less endowed bucks and in attracting females.

In essence, a massive set of antlers serves as a status symbol of male supremacy for all deer. And the hunter who kills a buck with an impressive set of such antlers likewise stands out among his or her peers.

Big Buck Sightings

Encountering a big-racked buck is a rare occurrence for most hunters because such creatures are nocturnal in their movement during the hunting season and because bucks are often harvested before they reach their peak antler growth.

The odds of encountering a mature buck are on the rise, though, as a growing number of hunters choose to pass on shooting yearling bucks.

Outdoors Calendar

Today-May 1: Everyone must wear PFD when underway on vessels less than 21 feet.

Nov. 16: Regular Deer season opens in Southern Zone.

Nov. 18: One-day closure of Canada Goose Season in Northeast Goose Hunting Area.

Nov. 19: Public hearing on boat launch facilities at Massena Town Hall at 7 p.m.

Nov. 30: Traditional bass season closes in New York state.

Dec. 8: Regular Deer season closes in Northern and Southern zones.

Dec. 14: Waterfowl season closes in Northeast Zone.

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